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ALMS: Petit Le Mans, Wrap-Up

It’s over.

There’s not much more to say than that. The series once known as the American Le Mans Series has been consigned to the trash bin – er, no; gotta be green, so it’s the recycling bin – of racing series throughout time.

What a ride it has been, but all things come to an end, and the Petit Le Mans marked the end, after 15 seasons, of a series that was once envied worldwide. Maybe more important, it may have also marked the end of the spirit of the series.

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Something was missing at Road Atlanta this last weekend and I don’t mean blue skies. Besides fans being missing, which was plainly noticeable, there was a distinct absence of passion at the track. It just seemed like it was the end of the road and in many cases it was (granted, the sad and unfortunate accident that claimed Sean Edwards’ life may have contributed to the subdued feeling around the paddock).

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The ALMS was run as enthusiastically as I’ve ever seen in any racing series. Those that were involved or interested knew they were witnessing a magic time in the sport. One day this will be looked back upon as truly one of the golden eras of sportscar racing, but now its disappearance leaves a void in many people’s lives.

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One very disappointing aspect of the weekend was a distinct lack of closure and respect for what the series has been. Was it perfect? No. Not at all. Many times it was far from perfect, but there was a charm about that. In what seems like a long time ago, I remember a conversation with [former DSC editor] Malcolm Cracknell, in which we both feared that the series may take a step up and become much bigger that it could handle, and that the series would then lose much of its charm. No worries there. Instead of getting too big, it eventually just went away.

What sort of celebration was there over the weekend? I saw nothing. There was a tent in the paddock that had some memorabilia from the past and there were special graphics on the Delta Wing, a car that in many ways represents the failures of the series.

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I saw both and, to be honest, they may have meant well, but all they did was show how far the series had fallen.

This is not meant as a disrespect to those that were in charge, but the apparent task at hand is to look to TUSCC and forget the past. That is understandable – after all many of those in charge now were previously tasked with competing with the ALMS. It was like the atmosphere was one of don’t look back – the TUSCC is coming. Unfortunately, there were many that simply wanted to look back and just didn’t get the opportunity.

After the race, I was facing a deadline for my commitments to InsideTrack, a magazine based out of Canada. I wanted to catch my feelings while they were fresh, so while writing at the airport, I came up with this, which truly reflected my feelings. “I found my emotions rather numb once Petit finally was over. I expected to be somewhat emotional and sad about what had been such a big part of my life going away. Instead, I said my goodbyes to my colleagues, walked out of the media center and over to a fenced area that gave me a view of the paddock. After spending maybe two minutes looking it over, I turned my back and walked away. It was over.”

Okay, enough of that. What about the race? I’d like to say the series went out with one last great Petit Le Mans, but that would not be the truth.

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Up front, it looked like we had a compelling race, what with Rebellion having to dig themselves out of a hole, but just when it started getting interesting, the Muscle Milk effort fell apart. Unexplained cooling issues sidelined their effort and left Lucas Luhr one win shy of 50 ALMS victories.

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It was a sad way to see P1 disappear from North America (for the time being?). Seeing Rebellion up against Muscle Milk gave us thought of what the last season could have been; instead Petit was what we’d see pretty much all season long – a one-car walk away.

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Dyson Racing must be relieved that 2013 is over. They were in line for a top-five finish until a late race issue – burnt wiring due to what appeared to be a dislodged header heat shield. Still, finishing Petit second in P1 was a much better way for the team to end the season than has been happening lately.

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In P2, a good late-race tussle involving David Brabham and Ryan Briscoe was a highlight for many. It would have been fitting to see David get the win, but it was not to be, as Briscoe and Level 5 held on to win the class and finish second overall.

To be honest, the P2 driver Championship went to the wrong person. Just like when Scott Tucker won the PC class a few seasons ago by a rules loophole, another driver will likely be viewed as the fan’s champion. Back then it was Gunnar Jeannette – this season it was Marino Franchitti who deserved the championship. If it wasn’t for what is now accepted as team strategy, the championship would have ended up another way. Moves like this would have been a massive controversy in F1 – in the ALMS, it’s just another shrug and acknowledgement that, well, it’s Level 5. No, I take that back – it’s the guys in Level 5 doing what they are paid to do. Make sure Scott Tucker adds to his championship tally, no matter what.

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In the Challenge classes, PC again led to a confusing finish, this time off the track. Winning on track was BAR1, which supposedly saw Chris Cumming take home the championship and also saw veteran driver Stephan Johansson finally get an ALMS victory. Unfortunately, post-race, after all of the podium shots, interviews and hoopla, it was discovered that 8Star, being a non-full season entrant, was not points-eligible; thus, everybody behind them vaulted up in the points, giving the drivers title to Mike Guasch and the team win to CORE. Oops…

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In GTC, the Lizards were dominant. Andy Lally was close at the end for Dempsey, but it was a Lizard weekend in the class. Thankfully there was no controversy in the class titles – Bleekemolen/MacNeil took the drivers title for AJR, while the Lizards managed to take the team title. Just like the old days in GT…

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Speaking of GT – that was the race. Period. Who would have placed a bet on Team Falken winning, especially after the season that they’d had? It’s not like they weren’t competitive during the season – they were at times, only for misfortune to hit them. It was a well deserved win for the team, one that may take the street course/rain master title away from both the team and the tire brand.

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The late battle between Falken, the #56 BMW and the Risi Ferrari was what we’ve grown accustomed to from the GT class in the ALMS. Who knows what may have happened if the race had gone a little longer? Mateo Malucelli was flying late in the race and was closing fast. They came on late in the season, shaking off some very rough races to finish the season very strong indeed. The addition of Robin Liddell paid off, as his stint was crucial in getting the car back into the lead and keeping it near the front.

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With Robin’s previous team, Stevenson, making some changes for next season (class and quite possibly manufacturer), this race must have done wonders to raise the confidence and the profile of the Scot, in what might be an interesting off-season.

Congrats to Corvette Racing in sweeping the titles – what a way to send the C6.R off into the sunset… bring on the C7.R.

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That’s it. That is my very last ALMS race report. It’s been a joy.

TUSCC is next. But pay attention – there are some pretty interesting and somewhat concerning undercurrents that will likely be popping up soon. It could be a pretty rough road coming up on the way to Daytona in 2014.

Gary Horrocks